In her three-hour shift on a recent Friday, tenant counselor Kim Rohrboch hears an earful of grief: a Chinese immigrant is upset that a male has replaced her female bathroom-mate; a recent Midwestern transplant is intimidated by her landlord’s threats and unsure if she needs to pay the 30 percent increase demanded of her; an unemployed woman reports that she’s behind on rent, and the vermin in her apartment have begun to eat her furniture.
“You have raw sewage coming into your house, rodent infestation, and a refrigerator that’s been broken since you moved in,” Rohrboch exclaims as she reads one tenant’s paperwork before offering advice. “Don’t get too inflammatory, but be firm.”
In a city where exorbitant home prices and a shrinking rental market stoke the ongoing warfare between tenants and landlords, the crowded office of the San Francisco Tenants Union in a Mission District Victorian is at the front lines. It is where renters bring personal battles and receive ammunition—a tenant handbook and a pep talk before dealing with the enemy.
Though the membership-supported Tenants Union works on behalf of renters across the city, its location in the heart of the Mission District is apt. The neighborhood was the site of more alleged wrongful evictions and owner-move-ins than any other neighborhood, according to the latest annual report issued by the city’s Rent Board in September.
“One reason is sheer numbers,” says Ted Gullicksen, director of the Tenants Union, adding that he estimates 90 percent of the district’s 60,000 residents are renters. (A 2006 study by the Mission Economic Development Agency reports that 80 percent of the district’s residents are renters, compared to the citywide rate of 65 percent.)
But Gullicksen says official tabs on evictions reflect only a “tiny fraction of what happens.” In the past decade, he has witnessed a steep decrease in the number of available rental units. “There’s demolitions, there’s conversion to corporate-type suites,” he says. “And everything that has been built in the last two years is luxury.”
The Tenants Union’s modest offices take up the first floor of a converted Victorian house. The counselor’s desk sits at one end of the waiting room, so counseling is a public affair.
“It stinks, it’s awful. There’s some kind of chemically, yucky smell there,” the woman behind on her bills tells Rohrboch, as those waiting their turn occupy the hodgepodge of old furniture crowding the room.
A Sunset District tenant whose landlord is asking for a $300 increase in rent says that she sympathizes with the owner’s personal problems, but, “I’ve been a good tenant, you know.”
Rohrboch, a slight woman who wears a red bandanna underneath a fishing hat, is a paralegal student and not a lawyer, a fact she often reminds her clients of as she offers advice: keep a log of the epithets used by the landlord; write a firm letter; and “talk to Chris Daly,” referring to the District 6 Supervisor and tenant advocate.
Rohrboch is one of about 30 volunteer counselors. The group’s philosophy is based on self-help, but if clients need legal advice, Rohrboch refers them to lawyers with community law organizations.
She tells everyone to study the tenant handbook they take home when they pay the sliding scale membership fee beginning at $30.
By the time Rohrboch walks out the door one hour behind schedule, the evening fog is rolling into the city. As she walks down the tree-shaded stoops, she passes six people lining the steps, awaiting the next counselor.